‘Soft skills are actually hard skills’; I assume most readers have heard this line at least once before, if not more.
Seth Godin, a prolific author, blogger, and teacher wrote an article titled “Let’s stop calling them soft skills” along with the sub-title “They might be skills, but they’re not soft’ in January 2017. The article is a masterpiece on the subject. Perhaps the business world has not given its due recognition to Godin’s wisdom. It is still not late.
The curiosity to know the origin of the term ‘soft skills’ led me to a study done by Joe Wright who positions himself to be a software development coach. Thanks to Joe I learn that the term was invented by the US Military between 1968 and 1972 to differentiate diverse behavioural factors of success from the skills of working with machines, the ‘hard skills’. The word ‘soft’ happens to be the
antonym of ‘hard’, and thus comes the new taxonomy, ‘soft skills’.The intent of the classification and the branding was noble and serious. By terming it ‘soft’, the US Military did not mean to place it below hard skills; in fact, soft skills are success skills. They took the subject seriously and did a phenomenal intellectual work which is available today in the public domain.
The core reason why the US Military was compelled to conceptualize and train its forces on soft skills was that the hard skills – handling weapons and machines – alone were not helping them win in the battlefield. Though top American enterprises much before the birth of the term ‘soft skills’ were doing behavioural training under various titles, the new taxonomy contributed to its current popularity.
Understanding Soft Skills Better There are many questions around soft skills:
What is it actually?
Why should employers spend their time and money on teaching soft skills?
Are they not supposed to be learned from schools and colleges?
Is it possible to train and change educationally qualified adults on behavioural skills?
Where is the time for soft skills training when hard skills are the priority?
Soft skills are mainly for junior employees, why should business leaders and managers undergo soft skills training?
The questions and the unending debates in the corridors and boardrooms on soft skills have led to three situations:
1. A micro minority investing in it and getting results.
2. A middle minority selectively doing it and getting selective results.
3. A vast majority not investing in soft skills at all. (Thus, paying a heavy price with low sales, low productivity, customer complaints, low quality of products, employee attrition and eventually business failures.)
So, let us start with clarity as I always say.
What is meant by soft skills?
Why soft skills are vital?
Broadly, soft skills are behavioural skills and cognitive strategies a person integrates with his or her hard skills to be successful in life.
For example, making content and structure for a business presentation demands hard skills. But making an outstanding presentation before a group of learned people demands the blending of the hard skills with a lot of soft skills such as projecting a confident self, speaking with diction,modulating voice, managing body language, using right words and images, giving pauses wherever required, connecting with the audience, involving them in a two-way process and finally concluding on a positive note.
In short, an outstanding presentation or a ‘high-impact presentation’ as some trainers say is the result of integrating hard skills with soft skills. Seth Godin wants it to be called ‘real skills’ and not soft skills. I would like to call it ‘success skills’ because, one cannot be successful in any walk of life without soft skills. Whether we call it ‘real skills’, ‘success skills’, ‘life skills’ or ‘behavioural skills’, the big basket of skills that we brand as ‘soft skills’ are must-learn-must-possess-must-demonstrate skills for any human being who is serious about achieving something worthwhile in life. No doubt about it. From a business perspective, soft skills lead to commercial success.
Let us start with a popular example which everyone in the business can connect with, an example even those who do not believe in soft skills cannot ignore.
Select two fresh graduates and send them to prospective customers without soft skills training. One approaches the prospect with a smile, talks with humility and confidence, present the products well with the right body language and tone, connects with the prospect emotionally and rationally and closes the deal; if not in the first visit, he makes it happen in the second or third visit as he has developed a favourable relationship with the prospect.
The second person does almost everything the same way but may be due to the absence of the right body language or tone, or the inability to develop relationship, he does not get sales closures. (Often such people never understands the reasons of their failures – it remains as a blind spot.) The single differentiating factor in the success of the first person is the demonstration of soft skills which the second person partially lacked. Even a marginal deficiency in soft skills makes a huge negative impact on the net effect. Business leaders often neglect this truth.
Let us look at two equally qualified doctors doing private consultancy. Both know their jobs well. But one is having a roaring practice and the other is struggling to get patients. When we analyse the causes of success and failure in this case, it will only lead to soft skills: the first has it and the second does not. If vocational skills (hard skills) can get you a job, only soft skills can take you up in the job. Soft skills development and career growth are mutually inclusive.
If hard skills enable you to launch a business enterprise, only soft skills can help you make it successful.
Why Soft Skills have Back Seat Today?
Why did the business world not catch up with the wisdom of systematic soft skills training with the due seriousness it deserves?
Here are the reasons I personally came across more than three decades:
- the subject is not understood in its fullest sense by most business leaders and HR managers. (Some business leaders do not even believe in the value of soft skills due to their wrong understanding of the subject.)
- the word ‘soft’ creates a perception that it is not a priority.
- ‘fixed mindset’ of a few business leaders, that people have learned enough from universities and business schools.
- fear of wasting money and time on employees who may leave and join somebody else tomorrow.
- lack of results or changes from the experimental investments made.
- cost of training/unaffordability, a problem with micro and small enterprises.
- business priorities and constant ‘fire-fighting’ (being in the ‘activity trap’) causing no-time-syndrome. (Where is the time for training?)
- lack of competent soft skills trainers and coaches (many self-proclaimed soft skills trainers do not understand their own subjects well.)
The above list highlights the major reasons I have come across. There are also possibilities of other individualistic reasons.
Yes, there are a few organizations doing soft skills training seriously as there is a compulsion on them due to the industry, they are serving – for example, customer service. A vast majority conduct it occasionally under compulsion from the HR department. As the leadership does not see any positive results from the sporadic investments, they develop the proverbial once-bitten-twice-shy mind. Subsequently, investments dry up.
My forthcoming book dedicates quite a few pages on soft skills for entrepreneurs and business leaders. I do not hesitate to state that scientific and systematic soft skills training can take many enterprisers to success.